Janine Davidson

Defense in Depth

Janine Davidson examines the art, politics, and business of American military power.

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Putin Appears to Be Angling for Invasion, Not De-Escalation

by Janine Davidson
July 30, 2014

putin-invasion-ukraine Russia's President Vladimir Putin (front C), accompanied by Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu (front L), walks to watch military exercises upon his arrival at the Kirillovsky firing ground in the Leningrad region, March 3, 2014. (Mikhail Klimentyev/Courtesy Reuters)


Europe’s announcement of sectorial sanctions against Russia is welcome news. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s continued aggression in Ukraine should not go unanswered by the international community.  Over time, this latest round, which affects  military, financial, and oil sectors will surely bite.  Whether they will change Putin’s calculus in the short term, however, is far less certain.  In fact, Putin’s moves to date signal his intentions loud and clear. Far from seeking options for a face-saving de-escalation, Putin is posturing for more military intervention.

The latest reports from U.S. intelligence suggest that Russia has not only been supplying a steady stream of high-end weapons and training to rebels in Ukraine; but they are also firing artillery from across the border. As former U.S. ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul plainly observed, “Instead of using [the Malaysian Air crash] as a pretext for ending this war, he seems to be doing the opposite, doubling down.”

This should really not surprise us.  Just because many of us think it would be unwise for Putin to continue to escalate this crisis, does not mean that he won’t do it anyway.  Buoyed by Russian domestic public opinion, Putin has demonstrated remarkable resolve in the face of increasingly tough sanctions and isolation from the international community.  The fact that escalating the conflict or even invading Ukraine may not be in Russia’s long-term interests is beside the point.  If we continue to try to predict Putin’s behavior based on what we think is “wise” versus what he is actually doing, we will continue to be surprised.

And the Russian president has made it pretty clear how much farther he may go. According to General Philip Breedlove, NATO Supreme Allied Commander, Russia continues to amass combat forces on the Ukraine-Russia border.  There are now well over 12,000 Russian combat troops deployed there, including seven battalion task groups and some special operations units, poised and ready for a full scale invasion if and when the time comes.

Meanwhile, as armed rebels continue to intimidate investigators and further contaminate evidence from the Malaysia Air crash site, Australia, the Netherlands, Malaysia, Britain, and Germany are thinking through how best to protect international investigators with some combination of armed and unarmed police and military troops.  In this increasingly tense environment, foreign boots on the ground are looking increasingly inevitable.  The question is, whose boots will they be?

Having previously announced his desire for outside forces to protect the interests of Russian-speaking Ukrainians, Putin has already set the stage for putting boots on the ground under the pretext of a “peacekeeping” or “humanitarian” mission.  He is now physically postured to do this unilaterally.  If past is prologue, among these Russian “peacekeeping” troops will be others who look suspiciously similar to Russian special operations troops, further tipping the scales and complicating the facts on the ground.

As General Breedlove, wrote on July 16, “Russia’s actions in and around Ukraine have not been, and are not now, defensive in nature…This is a 21st-century offensive employing 21st-century tools for strategic deception and calculated ambiguity to achieve Moscow’s political goals.”  It is time to recognize this power play for the cunning asymmetrical warfare it actually is.

But to actually deter further Russian aggression requires an overt demonstration of competence and will.  Vladimir Putin must have credible reason to believe that further escalation is not only contrary to his long-term interest, but that the military operation will fail—or at least be much harder and much more costly than he currently thinks it will be.

Those who argue that assisting the Ukrainian military would be “reckless and provocative,” misunderstand the logic of deterrence. Unless the Ukrainian military can provide a credible counter-force, Putin will continue to think this is a fight easily won.  As Philip Stephens explains, “weakness stokes the Russian president’s expansionism.”

The U.S. and NATO have rightly expressed their support for Ukraine and have taken small steps to support their military.  Non-lethal aid, like body armor, medical supplies, food, and other equipment are critical.  But for Ukraine to present a viable deterrent to Putin’s ambitions, it needs funding to pay troops, advisers to help plan, intelligence support for targeting, training for new recruits, and yes, ammunition and defensive weapons.

All this can be provided without putting U.S. or NATO boots in the fight.  Military aid is not the same as military intervention. Far from escalating the conflict or provoking Putin, bolstering Ukraine’s forces can actually deter further incursions by demonstrating to an ambitious aggressor the very real possibility that escalation will result in a messy and ultimately embarrassing demonstration of his military might.

Failing to adequately assist the Ukrainian military as Russian troops position for invasion is the opposite of deterrence, as it provokes, through demonstrated weakness, the very behavior we are trying to avoid.

Post a Comment 13 Comments

  • Posted by Sev

    Loose talks about imminent Russian invasion had been with us for several months already but Putin failed so far to make Western gloom and doom cristall ball gazers happy… Bad guy,he should be sanction just for this … There will be no Russian invasion and that will make a a lot of Western experts unhappy.. ready to make a bet….))
    Sev from Moscow ( Russia)

  • Posted by the seer

    West can’t match the determination of Russia to stand up against bullying.

  • Posted by Joe

    Does the West have to wait for invasion before it can act? Those who say it won’t happen keep the West appeasing rather than preparing.

  • Posted by Anthony

    How about this for deescalation. We stop with the “Putin is Stalin” and “Putin is Hitler” lines. He is not a nice guy. Everyone except Pat Buchanan and Steven Seagal agrees on that. But Ukraine is not a NATO member and maybe we should just leave it be for a while.

  • Posted by Matthew

    I think I would take the bet Sev proposed. An invasion may not be in the form of major cross-border military movements. The provision of arms and training are indicative of a clandestine incursion supporting Russian proxies.
    Whether Russian “humanitarian” or “peacekeeping” forces occupy Ukraine before or after annexation, the effect remains the same. Russian troops will be in position to reinforce territorial gains, expanding Russian influence in the region.

  • Posted by waheid

    One of my concerns is the limits of Putin’s control over events in southeastern Ukraine. Everything that I’ve read suggests that Putin is in absolute control. But is he? I’m not prepared to argue that he is not, but I am prepared to doubt that he is. Is it possible that there are others, in the Russian intelligence services and/or the Russian military, who are acting on their own volition? I wish those with some real knowledge of the situation would address this issue.

  • Posted by Stephen Harris

    Whether Putin invades or not, failing understand the real motives behind this land grab is fatal. It is about oil, plain and simple. The Crimean expansion gives Russia un-mitigated control over potentially vast resources as the international boundaries are currently drawn. Eastern Ukraine is the industrial sector, as well as agricultural, but it is also where most of the promising oil and gas, including unconventional shale beds are positioned. Every war last century had blood and oil mixed in, and so far, this century is no different. All countries have to have food, shelter and energy – take away one or more, you have either submission or war. Geopolitics serves the energy master and Putin knows that without his exports, and a high oil price, he would be trashed like a Kaddafi when the Russian people have had enough of this little man. CFR opinion writers generally know this, but are loathe to simplify mendacious behavior and default back to complicated global political in-bred obfuscations. I feel bad for those poor souls in Ukraine, but unless the EU and the US move with military might to stop him (and his supplicants) we all know the script. The good news is that Putin’s generals are no fools and if the Ukrainian army were to procure stingers (can we say Afghanistan) and other defensive tools that neutralize costly weapon systems (remember the giant and very expensive attack helos the Russians started loosing in Afghanistan) they will sue for peace and stop the conquest (go back to drilling your own lands and hope the world forgets later on your bloody actions). If the generals do not, then like in all civilized countries, the mothers that receive the body bags will tear his head off. It is predictable history.

  • Posted by Anders

    Ms. Davidson’s article is probably right on the spot, provided the Belarus talks don’t alter the situation.

    Russia already has own troops, acting as local rebels, in Ukraine and supplies heavy weaponry when needed. The next step, and a logical counter move to the latest sanctions, would be to officially deploy Russian troops into Ukraine in order to take control of parts or all of Ukraine. The Ukraine forces would hardly stand a chance if confronted by the Russian airforce and regular army.

  • Posted by JJ

    In just few months the public has stopped talking about the guarantees that Russia, US and UK agreed on in return of Ukraine giving away its nuclear weapons.
    It is clear that Russia has broken it’s promises. It should be better understood in the west that Russia traditionally respects only those of their promises that give them what they want. Others mean absolutely nothing.
    But what happened to US and UK commitment? The writer is so right about how the lack of concrete support for Ukraine is just urging Putin to invade.

  • Posted by Borderline

    We can only speculate what will happen next, my crystal ball tells me Mr. Putin has been waiting for all sanctions to come his way before proposing a comprehensive settlement of all gripes between Russia and the West, including Russia joining back the G7.

    Mr. Putin think he has valuable chips on the table. He certainly does, and threatening East Ukraine is one heck of a chip. On the other hand, Ukraine is the gate for his Eurasian Economic Union, and he relishes a rising not a reduced trade and technical cooperation with Europe. A more combative stance against the West can wait till Russia develops more diverse markets on his own.

    I see in this scenario another reset of relations, and Ukraine could become a neutral country in the fashion of Switzerland. Considering that a further escalation of tensions in Easter Ukraine is not profitable for Russia and the West, this can be the way out everyone is looking for, Mr. Putin included.

  • Posted by mike

    Not to argue with the premise that Russia may invade Ukraine, because it is beginning to look as if it might (I emphasize “might”), its behavior is highly dependent on the West’s behavior and its influence on Russia’s threat perception. Fact is, Russia’s behavior in the FSU and the world is a reaction to its perception of threat from the US (and the West). NATO expansion (despite earlier US promises not to expand), the wars in Kosovo and the Middle East have all reinforced a perception that the US intends to surround and contain Russia. This despite early Russian efforts to integrate into Western institutions which were continuously rebuffed while many FSU states were welcomed with open arms. A lot of Russian behavior is in fact quite reactive, the invasion of Georgia followed indications by the Bush administration that they intended to fast-track its entry into NATO. The situation in Ukraine is quite similar. The EU association agreement set up a potential long-term threat for Russia by setting the groundwork for its potential entry into NATO.

    We can be cynical about Putin and say he is using this perception to advance his own imperialist agenda, but the facts speak to the contrary. Putin came in as a strong pro-Western leader. He did believe in building up Russia, but what leader wouldn’t? When looked at objectively, without the Cold War enemy images that our leadership can’t seem to shake, most of Russia’s behavior is in fact quite reactive to our instigation.

  • Posted by Jochen Luhmann

    in emphasizing Mike’s post, the NATO decision in April 2008 reads as follows:

    „NATO welcomes Ukraine’s and Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations for membership in NATO. We agreed today that these countries will become members of NATO“ (Bucharest Summit Declaration, 3.4.2008, http://bit.ly/1km1TEJ).

  • Posted by neolibsmergewithneocons

    Author does not address what part of the Ukr forces are now left to arm. The nonpartisan consensus is 7,000 kia and 5,000 deserters with wia unknown. This is why a new mobilization is happening. We will give stingers to these newly drafted 18 yr olds? They won’t use aircraft anyway. They will probably continue to do what they have been doing. Realistically, the only way to stop them is with two US divisions on the ground. That or grant the Ukrainians states’ rights and reduced central power. You know, kind of exactly like true US conservatives would expect for themselves. US access to Donbass titanium, etc? Do you think the newly mobilized troops will fight for that? Keep in mind that Poland already has 2,000 troops on the front fighting with Russian Spetsnatz. What is scary is that a diversion by NATO might be a new war over Transdnistra in the next few days that will force Russian air force action over Moldavia or a false flag nuclear plant accident by Right Sektor that is blamed on the Russians. Note yesterday’s resignation of the neo Nazi minister whom the Russians believe brought down mh17 as a false flag. We are all in danger if anybody gets away with a false flag. You can be anti Russian, pretending to yourself that Ukraine existed before 1991, but you must still speak out if you believe Russia was framed with mh17

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